Man exercises a year of forgiveness after drunk teen driver kills wife, two children

Published: Monday, April 8 2013 9:00 a.m. MDT

On the other hand, to forgive doesn't necessarily mean to invite the teenager into his life, Williams says. "This is the box you're going to live in," he tells the idea of White. "You're contained." If he focuses on the fact that White hurt his family, that's letting the teenager out of the box, Williams says. That's why he didn't attend White's parole hearing. "The box is now incredibly small."

To reconcile with the person who wronged you — getting to know him if he's a stranger, becoming friends again if he's someone you know — may be advisable in situations like post-apartheid South Africa, where it's important to build community. But it's not always necessary, or advisable. Researchers say that people who have been sexually abused might be more harmed than helped by being encouraged to talk to their abusers.

But there are also stories of people who have reached out to, and even become friends with, the people who hurt them. Occasionally this has resulted in a collaboration to fight drunken driving or violence or war. You can find some of these stories at www.theforgivenessproject.com, a London-based organization begun by journalist Marina Cantacuzino.

Cantacuzino began her project as an exhibition called "The F Word," a nod to how complicated the notion of forgiveness is. "For some people," writes Cantacuzino, "forgiveness is a very dirty word indeed."

Forgiveness as a skill

Here's what forgiveness is not, says Stanford's Luskin: forgetting that something painful happened, minimizing your hurt, not holding people accountable for their actions. Here is what forgiveness is: a choice, "the practice of extending your moments of peacefulness," something completely under your control.

Forgiveness may not be our first impulse, but it's a teachable skill, Luskin says. "You can set up classes and teach people to forgive, in the same way you can set up classes to teach people how to play the piano."

He has taught forgiveness to mothers in Northern Ireland whose children died in sectarian violence, and to Americans with long lists of grievances: spouses who have been cheated on, grown-ups who had been abandoned as children, business people whose partners lied to them. Now, as detailed in his new book, "Forgive for Love," Luskin is working with couples, using forgiveness as a relationship tool.

Forgiveness, he says, doesn't depend on the intensity of the wrong done to you, nor does it require that the other person repent or ask for your forgiveness first.

"People languishing in a hell of their own making because they simply can't let it go," is the way Ron Yengich describes the people who don't forgive. In his years as a defense attorney, Yengich has seen a few stunning examples of people who have forgiven his clients, most recently the courtroom statement of Anna Kei'aho, the mother who told a 3rd District judge that she and her family extend their love to her son's killer and his family. More often, though, Yengich has seen a parade of people who choose to hold onto their anger and hurt.

Society isn't always very helpful, Yengich says. "What we teach in America is: Once you've been victimized, maintain your victimhood forever, at all costs, and use that as an excuse for whatever happens to you in the future." As for our feelings about perpetrators, he says, "our idea of justice is fairly simple: once we've got our foot on someone's neck, justice for us is to press down as hard and as long as we can."

Punishment is one thing, a necessary part of the legal system, the part that looks for justice. But revenge is something else, says Yengich, who understands the impulse. Forty years ago, when he heard that Robert Kennedy had been shot, Yengich realized that he'd like to "rip Sirhan Sirhan to shreds." That vengeful person still exists in him, he says. "That's one of the things I have to worry about every day. That's the guy I'm working on."

Like Chris Williams and researcher Everett Worthington, Yengich looks for help from religion and philosophy. "Not to sound too weird on this stuff," he says, "but one of the problems we have in our society today is we believe we can do all this on our own."

Worthington says studies have shown that people who have a religious or philosophical viewpoint that values forgiveness are more willing to grant forgiveness for being wronged. "Whereas if they were raised in an environment where they never consider forgiveness an option, it's more difficult to head down that path."

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